What is too deep? She was surprised by her brothers flippancy. It was
insensitive, and she relied upon his sensitivity to give meaning to her life.
There are some subjects, Mary, which have no depth. Onions is one of them. He was annoyed by his disloyalty towards his friend, and quickly changed the subject. Why is Sunday so horrid? It is my day of rest, but it is so dry and desolate. It presses the life out of me. There is nowhere to think. He jumped up from the chair, and stood next to his sister in the bay of the window. It only comes alive by twilight. But by then it is too late. Now I will go to my room and study Sterne.
She was accustomed to this. Being left by Charles was, as she put it to herself, a compound verb signifying a coherent and complete sensation of loss, disappointment and anticipation. She did not feel abandoned, precisely. She was hardly ever alone in the house. And here they were. She heard her mothers key in the lock, and instinctively she held herself more upright; it was as if she were warding off danger. Mr Lamb was wiping his boots on the straw mat by the door while Mrs Lamb was asking their maid-servant, Tizzy, to clear up the leaves. Mary knew that Charles would be sinking deeper into his chair, shutting out the noises of the house with Sterne. She turned back to the window, as her parents entered the room, and prepared herself to become a daughter again.
Sit with your poor father, Mary, while I prepare an eggnog. He may have caught cold. He shook his head and laughed. What are you saying, Mr Lamb? He looked down at her feet. You are quite right. I still have on my pattens. You miss nothing, I am sure.
Take them off, he said. And then he laughed again.
Mary Lamb had watched her fathers slow decline with interest. He had been a man of business, quick and efficient in all the dealings of the world. He had marshalled his affairs as if he were engaged in warfare with some invisible enemy and, when he returned each evening to the house in Laystall Street, he had an air of triumph. Then, one evening, he came home wide-eyed with terror. I dont know where I have been, was all he said. Quietly he began to slip away. He had been Marys father, then he became her friend and, finally, her child.
Charles Lamb seemed to pay no attention to his fathers condition; he avoided him, whenever possible, and made no comment on his increasing incapacity. Whenever Mary raised the subject of Pa, he listened to her patiently but offered no comment. He could not speak of it.
Mr Lamb was rubbing his hands eagerly, in anticipation of the egg-nog.
When her mother had left the room, Mary sat down beside him on the faded green divan. Did you sing at the service, Pa?
The minister was mistaken.
On what matter?
There are no rabbits in Worcestershire.
Are there not?
No, nor muffins neither.
Mrs Lamb professed to believe that there was some wisdom in her husbands ramblings, but Mary knew that there was none. Yet he interested her more now than he had ever done; she was intrigued by the strange and random phrases that issued from him. It was as if language was talking to itself.
Are you cold, Pa?
Just an error in the accounts.
Do you suppose?
A red letter day.
Mrs Lamb returned with the egg-nog in a bowl. Mary dear, you are keeping your father from the fire. She was perpetually watchful, as if something in the world was forever trying to elude her. Where is your brother?
Excerpted from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd Copyright © 2005 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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